The History of a Feud and the Future of Wiglaf’s Geats: Book XXXIX – Book XLI

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf and a feud.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stiklestad#/media/File:Arbo-Olav_den_helliges_fall_i_slaget_p%C3%A5_Stiklestad.jpg

XXXIX

That which had happened was painfully felt
by the young man when he on the ground saw
that dearest one pitiably suffering
at his life’s end. The slayer also lay so,
the terrible earth dragon was bereaved of life,
overwhelmed by ruin. In the hoard of rings no
longer could the coiled serpent be on guard,
once the sword edge carried it off,
felt the hard, battle-sharp remnant of hammers, just so
the wide-flier was stilled by its wounds and
lay where it had fallen near the treasure house. Never
after did it move about through the air by flight
in the middle of the night, glorying in its rich possessions,
never could it make more appearances,
since it had fallen to earth at the war leader’s deed of the hand.

Indeed few mighty men on earth
have so succeeded, as I have heard,
though every deed they did was daring,
few of them would make a rush against the breath of the
fierce ravager or could disturb a hall of rings by hand,
if he discovered the ward awakened and
dwelling in the barrow. Beowulf had paid
for his share of the noble treasures with his death;
each had reached the end of
their loaned lives.

          It was not long then
before the laggards in battle left the wood,
ten cowardly traitors together,
those that dared not fight by the spear when
their liege lord was in greatest need;
but they were ashamed when they came bearing shields,
dressed in clean war garments, to where their lord lay.
They gazed on Wiglaf.

          The thane sat exhausted,
the warrior on foot near his lord’s shoulder.
He still tried to revive him with water — thought not at all did that speed him.
He might not on earth make that chieftain keep his life,
though he wished well to,
nor could he at all change the decree of the Ruler;
God’s decree would rule over the deeds
of each man, as it does yet.
Then from that young warrior a grim answer
was easy to obtain for those who earlier had lost their courage.

Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son,
the man sad at heart — he saw those gathered as not dear:

“Lo! It may be said, by he who will speak truth,
that the liege lord, he who gave you that treasure,
that military gear, that you there stand in,
when he at ale-bench oft gave
to sitters in the hall helms and byrnies,
the prince over his retainers, the strongest that he could
find either far or near, all that he may
as well have furiously tossed away, that war gear
that he from battle won.
Not at all did that folk-king have cause to boast
of comrades in arms. Yet god allowed him, the
victorious ruler, so that he himself could drive forward
with his sword alone, when he had need for courage.”

“I could offer but little of life protection
to him in the fray, and yet I felt my limits
lessen when I strove to help our lord.
It was ever weakening, when I landed sword blows
on the mortal enemy, the fire from his head then
grew sluggish. As he became desperate, too few rallied
around the prince, at the time of the beast’s final
thrashing. Now shall the sword-gifting and treasure
sharing, all the native-land joy of our people,
our hope, be subdued. Each of us will have
our land-right become idle
among our people, afterwards princes from afar
will come seeking, driving us all to flee,
an inglorious deed. Death is better
to every warrior than a life of dishonour!”

XL

Wiglaf then bade that the battle work be
reported to those encamped on the cliff-edge, where the
noble warrior host had sat sorrow-hearted all through that morning,
the shield bearers, entertaining both possibilities:
that it was the end of the dear man’s days,
that the prized prince would return again.

          The messenger
kept little silent in his story, so that naught was left
unsaid, and so he spoke truth to them all:

“Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for his sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.

          “Now our people may
expect war-time, once the king’s fall
becomes widely and openly known
among Franks and Frisians. The fury of the Franks
was hard rattled, after Hygelac sailed from afar
in a war fleet to Frisian lands, there
Hetware harried him on the field, zealously came out
against him with overpowering might so that the
corseleted warrior was made to give way,
he fell among foot soldiers; not at all did that
lord give treasures to his troop. Ever since then
the Merovingian have shown us no mercy.

“Nor do I expect the Swedes to hold us as kin
or remain peaceful; for it was widely known
that Ongeontheow slew Haethcyn,
son of Hrethel, in the strife at Ravenswood,
when for arrogance the Geats first
sought to strike the Scylfings.
Old and terrible, Ohthere’s wise father
gave the return assault,
destroyed the sea king, kept his bride,
deprived his aged wife of gold,
the mother of Onela and Ohthere.
then he followed the mortal foe,
until they showed themselves
in great leaderless hardship in the Ravenswood.

“Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows-trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final moment.”

XLI

“The gory track Geats and Swedes left there,
from the widely seen onslaught,
was easy to follow back to the erupting feud.
Then he knew the good men among his comrades,
the old sorrowful man sought to secure his soldiers,
Ongeontheow the chief turned to higher ground.
For he had learned first hand of Hygelac’s battlecraft,
his splendid war strength and he trusted not to resistance,
the hope that he might rout those seafarers,
those sea-borne warriors, resist that horde,
protect his son and wife. After that the aged one’s
banners went behind the earthen wall. Then the
persecution of the Swedish people was commanded,
Hygelac’s sign rushed forward into the peaceful plain.

“Afterward the Hrethlings thronged around that fortified enclosure.
There by the sword’s edge Ongeontheow,
the grey-haired lord, was left to suffer at
Eofor’s command alone. Angrily against him
Wulf son of Wonred reached with a weapon,
so that his sword swing struck, sending blood
forth from under his hair. Yet he was
not frightened, the old Scylfing,
he paid him back double for that blow,
turning a far worse death strike against that one,
After the king had turned thither.

“Yet the bold son of Wonred could not
land a blow against that aged man,
for he had sheared the helm from his head,
so that Wulf had to bow his bloodied head,
fell to the ground. But fate called not yet to him,
and he recovered himself, though he fully felt his wound.
Eofor, that hardy thane of Hygelac, then hoisted
his broad blade, as his brother lay there,
an antique edge of giant design, his stroke caught the giant’s helm,
cut through Ongeontheow’s shield wall; then bowed that king,
the people’s protector, he was struck through to his soul.

“There were many then, those who bandaged Wulf,
swiftly raised him up, since it had been cleared,
since they ruled that bloodied field.
At the same time, winning warriors stripped those who lost,
from Ongeontheow went his iron mail,
his hard sword hilt and his helmet also.
These old ornaments were brought to Hygelac.
He accepted these treasures and himself fairly stated
among the people that reward would be had, and so he did.
He paid them for their battle-rush, the Geat lord,
Hrethel’s son, when they arrived home,
Eofor and Wulf were overloaded with gifts;
he gave them lands and linked rings
of great value in gold — no man on earth
need reproach him for that reward — after they
forged their glorious deed;
and to Eofor he also gave his only daughter,
a tender home-shaper, his loyalty to lock.

“That is the root of our feud and foe-ship,
this very deadly hostility, which, as I truly believe,
means that we shall be sought by the Swedes,
after they hear of how our lord is now lifeless,
the one who in earlier days defended
our people and treasures against our enemies,
after our warriors fell, a prelude to the Scylfings,
worked ever for the people’s benefit and went further
than any other to be like a true lord. Now haste is best,
that we our king go to see,
he who gave us rings, and then go with him
to the funeral pyre.

          “None shall match
what will melt amidst his glory, for there shall be the
treasure’s hoarded gold untold, bought at so grim a cost;
and now at his departure those rings bought
with his own life: the fire shall consume them,
all swallowed in the searing heat, no man shall
wear that treasure to remember, nor may
any woman wear those costly rings as shining adornment,
but they shall be sad-hearted, bereaved of gold,
for oft, not once alone, shall they tread foreign lands,
the leader’s laughter now having been silenced,
sport and mirth ceased.

          “The future will see hands habituated to hoisting
morning-cold spears, heaved by hand, not at all shall
the harp’s sweep stir warriors, but wan on the wing
the raven flying over the doomed will speak,
tell the eagle how he vomited and ate,
when he and the wolf tore and tasted the dead.”

Such was the sentence of that speaker’s
dire speech; he did not deceive in
what he told and read of fate. The troop all arose,
went without joy beneath Eagle Cliff,
faces tear-torn, the terrible scene to see.

They found him on the sand where his soul left his body,
emptily guarding his couch, he who had given rings
in days past. That was the final day
of that good man’s journey, indeed that great-king,
lord of the Weders, died a wondrous death.

Yet before that they saw a stranger creature,
opposite him there on the strand was the serpent, there
the loathed one lay: it was the dweller of the drake’s
den, the sombrely splattered horror, glowing like an
ember for its flames. It was full fifty feet long,
laying there; just days ago it knew
the joy of night-flight, keeping a searching eye out for
its den down below; it was held there in death,
never again would it know its earth den.

Beside it stood beakers and cups,
plates laid about and dear swords,
rusty, eaten through, as only those who live
in the embrace of earth for a thousand winters
can be. Yet that huge cache,
the hold of gold of men of old, was spell-bound,
so that no man might enter
that ring-hall, save god itself,
Ruler of Triumph, give its approval
— for god is humanity’s handler — to open that hoard,
even then only for such a man as the Ruler thought fit.

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The Feud Isn’t Over Yet: Book XX – Book XXII

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

Grendel’s mother has Beowulf pinned and raises her dagger over him, ready to finish the fight! By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

XX

Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:

“Ask ye not about the night’s joy; sorrow is renewed
to the Danish people. Æschere is dead,
Yrmenlaf’s elder brother,
my counsellor and confidant, my advisor,
my shoulder companion, when we at battle
were both at the fore, when we clashed with foes,
when the boar figures were struck. So should a man be,
a warrior who has proven his worth — so Æschere was!
A deadly creature came wandering to Heorot
to kill him by hand; I know not to what secret place
that terrible one slunk to turn him to carrion,
to make of him a gore-spattered feast. She carried on our feud,
that which you the other night inflamed by killing Grendel
in your violent manner with the might of your grip,
since he had for so long a time terrified my people,
ravaged and grieved them. He fell in that fight
and forfeited his life; and now another
wicked ravager has come, looking to avenge her kin,
she who has already done much for her vengeance,
so it may seem to many thanes,
after they have seen their ring-giver weeping from the heart,
submerged in his dire distress; now that his hand lay still,
the hand that proved generous to every desire.

“I have heard the dwellers in the land, my people,
and my hall counsellors say,
that they have seen two such
mighty prowlers of the murky moors, patrolling them,
alien creatures; there one of them,
they all can say with great certainty,
has a woman’s likeness; the other unfortunate
in a man’s form treads the path of exile,
but never had they seen a bigger man;
in earlier times the dwellers in the land named
him Grendel; they knew not their lineage,
their parentage was said to be hidden among
mysterious spirits. They occupy that
strange land, living along wolf-inhabited slopes, near wind-wracked cliffs,
up the perilous fen-path, where mountain streams
fall through mists from the headlands,
water creeping from underground. It is not many miles
hence that their mere can be found,
with frost-covered groves overhanging it;
tree roots overshadow those waters with their interlocking embrace.
Each night there you can see the oddest of wonders;
the water catches fire! None among the dear wise
children of humanity know of those waters’ bottom.
Even the stag, harassed by wolves,
that hart strong of horn, would seek security in the wood,
even if it was far off, would turn to offer its horns,
lose its life on the bank, before it would enter that water,
conceal his head. That is no pleasant place.
Thence rise up surging waves
to a darkened sky, there the winds stir
hateful storms, so much so that the air becomes gloomy,
and the sky weeps.

Now as before we depend
upon you alone for help. That region is not yet known,
that perilous place. There you may find
the creature carrying the guilt of killing; seek it out if you dare.
I will reward you with great wealth for ending this feud,
award you with ancient treasures, as I did already,
give works of twisted gold, if you seek out this wretch.”

XXI

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“Do not sorrow, wise lord! Better be it for each man
if he avenge his friend, than if he mourn long.
Each of us shall experience an end
to life in this world; achieve what glory you can
before death! That is the way to place among the best of warriors
after you are no longer living.
Arise, protector of the realm, head out quickly with me,
so that we can find the trail of Grendel’s kin!
I to thee promise this: it shall not escape into protection,
nor into the earth’s bosom, nor into the mountain wood,
nor to the depths of the sea, try as it might.
This day you shall have patience enough
for each misery, as I have come to expect you to.”

Then the old one leapt up, thanked God,
the mighty Lord, for what the man had said.
Hrothgar had his horse bridled,
the one with the braided hair; the wise king
rode out in fine array. His troop of shield-bearers
marched on. Tracks were widely seen
over the trails through the wood,
leading over earth, going straight
over to the darkened moor,
left by the lifeless body of the dear servant, drug along,
he who had watched over the home of Hrothgar.

The prince’s thanes then rode on
over steep rocky slopes, around narrowly winding paths,
through ways that fit just single file soldiers, up trails unknown,
over precipitous headlands, lined with the homes of water monsters.
Hrothgar went on ahead with a handful of the wise,
to see that strange place; they looked about
until suddenly they found a patch of mountain trees
all growing out over grey stones,
a joy-less forest, waters stood beneath them,
blood-stained and turbid. To all the Danes gathered there,
friends of the Scyldings, the sight caused harsh suffering
at heart, bringing the same heaviness to each of the many thanes,
striking each of them with grief, once they found
the head of Æschere on the cliff by the water’s side.
Amidst the waters blood surged — clear for the men there to see —
hot with gore. At times a thane sounded a horn,
sang an urgent war-song. Those on foot all sat down;
there through the water they saw many of the race of serpents,
strange sea-dragons knew those depths,
likewise, on the headlands lay water monsters,
those that often undertake to hijack ships as they
set out on fateful voyages down the sail-road in the morning,
dragons and beasts. They rushed about the waters,
fierce and enraged; they had heard that sound,
the resounding war-horn. One of the Geats
severed the life of one with an arrow from his bow,
than did it battle against the waves, since that war arrow stuck in
its side; it was then slower against the waters
in that sea, until death took its fight away.
That beast was quickly pulled from the waves,
assaulted with savagely barbed boar spears,
fiercely the thanes attacked it to tug that wondrous
wave-traverser to the shore; the men
all gazed upon that terrible stranger.

Beowulf geared himself
in warrior’s garb, he felt no anxiety for his life then.
His hand woven war-corselet, broad and skilfully decorated,
would soon know those depths,
he was confident in its ability to protect his bone-chamber,
so that no hand-grasp could crush his chest,
that no furious foe’s malicious hand could harm him.
And on his head a shining helmet he wore,
which would soon muddy the mere’s bottom,
would soon enter the surging waters, that treasure-embellished helm,
encircled by a lordly band, made as those in elder days,
wrought by a weapon smith, wondrously formed,
set all around with boar-images, so that the wearer
would not be bitten by blade or battle sword.
Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man loaned him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting,
an ancient treasure beyond compare.
The sword’s edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle. Never in combat had it failed
any of its wielders, whoever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds.
For that son of Ecglaf, strong in might,
no longer thought of what that one had said before,
while drunk on wine, when he loaned that weapon
to the better swordsman; he himself dared not
to venture beneath the turmoil of those waves
and risk his life to do a heroic deed; there he lost
his fame, his reputation for courage. But the other
showed no fear, the one already well-girded for battle.

XXII

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“Now think upon it, son of Halfdane,
wise ruler, now that I am ready for this journey,
gold-giving friend of men, that which we two had spoken on:
that if I while in your service shall
lose my life, that you would go forth afterwards
always in a father’s place for me.
That you would be a preserver of my retainers,
my companions, if battle shall take me.
As for the treasure that you have given me,
dear Hrothgar, send it to Hygelac.
Thus, may the lord of the Geats gaze upon those riches,
thus the son of Hrethel will see, when he looks upon that treasure,
that I a liberal and great ring giver
had found, and enjoyed his generosity to the full.
And you, Unferth, are to have my own treasure,
my sword so forged its metal shows waves, you the wide-known
man are to have that hard edge. With Hrunting, I shall
wreak vengeance, or death shall take me.”

After those words the Geatish lord
was quickened by courage, no answer
would he wait for, into the sea-wave he
threw himself. It was nearly the length of a full day
before he could see the bottom of that lake.
Soon that one sensed him, she who that underwater expanse
had occupied for a fiercely ravenous fifty years,
grim and greedy, she knew that a man,
an alien being, one from above had come exploring.
With claw outstretched she grasped towards him, wrapped the warrior
in her terrible grip. Yet nowhere on his body
was he at all injured, his mail protected him all around,
she could not pierce through his war coat,
the linked mail shirt was locked against her loathsome fingers.
That she-wolf of the water bore him away, once they came to the bottom,
carried the ring mailed prince to her dwelling,
so that he was unable to wield his weapon,
though he had his fill of courage. A rushing horde of wondrous creatures
pressed upon him in those waters, many a sea-beast
tore with its tusks at his war-shirt,
gave a fierce pursuit. Than that prince perceived
that he was in some hostile hall,
a dry place where water harmed him not at all,
he saw that the roof of the place held back the current,
the sudden pull of the waters:
there a gleaming light shone bright within.
Then he saw that accursed woman of the deep clearly,
the strong sea-woman. A mighty blow he gave
with his battle blade, he held nothing back in his hand-stroke,
so that the ring patterned sword sang out upon her head,
howled its greedy battle dirge. Yet there that surface dweller discovered
that the flashing sword would not bite,
that it would not harm his target’s life: the sword failed
that prince in his time of need. Before it had endured many
hand to hand combats, had often shorn away helmets,
sliced through the fated ones’ war garments. That was the first time
that dear treasure failed to show its true glory.

But Beowulf was yet resolute, not at all did his courage wane,
mindful of the glorious deed at hand was that kin of Hygelac,
that angry warrior threw the sword with curved markings,
inlaid with ornamentation, so that it clattered, useless, on the ground,
hard and steel-edged. He then trusted to his own might,
the strength of his hand-grip. So shall a man do
when he thinks to gain long-lasting fame in the midst
of combat, not at all is he anxious about his own life.
He grabbed her by the shoulder — feeling no sorrow for his violent act —
the man of the warrior Geats pressed against Grendel’s mother,
then flung the fiend from where she stood, enraged
against the deadly foe, so that she fell to the floor.
She was quickly up and payed back that blow
with a fierce grip of her own, followed through with her forward grasp.
Stumbled then the wearied warrior, though the strongest,
a true foot-soldier, so that he fell to the floor.
She sat then on her hall-guest and drew a dagger,
broad of blade, bright of edge. She was ready to avenge her son,
her only offspring. But on Beowulf’s breast lay
the firm mail-coat, the protector of his life,
it prevented the dagger’s point and its edge from piercing.
The son of Ecgtheow would have perished
beneath the wide earth, that Geatish man,
if his war-corselet had not provided its help,
that tough mail-coat. And if holy God
had not controlled the victory in that battle, the wise Lord,
Ruler of Heaven; the Ruler easily decided
the right outcome for the fight, once that man stood up.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

Reluctant king Beowulf and his long-term feud strategy

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
Quick Question
Closing

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage, maybe to quell a feud.

A miniature from a French manuscript depicting the homage ritual. How loyalty was pledged to a superior. Click for source.


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Recap

After showing how the dragon devastated Beowulf’s lands and hall, the poet started to share how Beowulf became king.


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Synopsis

After some swimming, some fighting, and some turning offers down, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. He also tries to ensure a lasting peace.


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The Original Old English

Oferswam ða sioleða bigong sunu Ecgðeowes,
earm anhaga, eft to leodum;
þær him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
beagas ond bregostol, bearne ne truwode
þæt he wið ælfylcum eþelstolas
healdan cuðe, ða wæs Hygelac dead.
No ðy ær feasceafte findan meahton
æt ðam æðelinge ænige ðinga,
þæt he Heardrede hlaford wære
oððe þone cynedom ciosan wolde;
hwæðre he him on folce freondlarum heold,
estum mid are, oððæt he yldra wearð,
Wedergeatum weold. Hyne wræcmæcgas
ofer sæ sohtan, suna Ohteres;
hæfdon hy forhealden helm Scylfinga,
þone selestan sæcyninga
þara ðe in Swiorice sinc brytnade,
mærne þeoden. Him þæt to mearce wearð;
he þær for feorme feorhwunde hleat
sweordes swengum, sunu Hygelaces,
ond him eft gewat Ongenðioes bearn
hames niosan, syððan Heardred læg,
let ðone bregostol Biowulf healdan,
Geatum wealdan. þæt wæs god cyning!
Se ðæs leodhryres lean gemunde
uferan dogrum, Eadgilse wearð
feasceaftum freond, folce gestepte
ofer sæ side sunu Ohteres,
wigum ond wæpnum; he gewræc syððan
cealdum cearsiðum, cyning ealdre bineat.
(Beowulf ll.2367-2396)


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My Translation

“Thanks to long practice he swam over the sea,
the son of Ecgtheow, a reclusive water treader heading
back to his people. There Hygd urged him to take
the treasure and the throne, rings and the power seat.
She trusted not her son. She doubted that he could hold
the royal seat against foreign foes, for Hygelac was dead.
Yet for nothing could that people find a means
to get Beowulf to accept such power, nothing whatever swayed him,
so long as Heardred was lord,
until the kingdom itself would choose.
Nonetheless, in that time Beowulf proved to be a well
of friendly counsel among the people, freely and with grace,
until he became mature in power, a ruler of the Weder-Geats.
But then miserable men sought for Heardred from over the sea,
Ohthere’s son. Those men had rebelled against the protector
of the Scylfings, the best among sea kings,
he who had dealt out treasure in the Swedish kingdom,
the greatly famed ruler. For Heardred that marked the end.
For his hospitality he gained a terrible wound,
the sting of a swung sword, that unfortunate son of Hygelac.
Afterwards Ongentheow’s son left,
headed for home, after Heardred was slain,
leaving the ruler’s seat for Beowulf to fill,
he was then called to rule the Geats. That was a good king!
Though the fall of the prince made that one mindful,
worried for retribution as days dragged on, he turned to Eadgils,
a man destitute of friends. That people,
those of the sons of Ohthere, he helped
with warriors and weapons. The feud was settled after a chill cold,
a cruel campaign, when old king Onela was bound by death.”
(Beowulf ll.2367-2396)


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Quick Questions

To summarize the feud upon feud in this passage:

The son of Ohthere and his gang get vengeance for Ohthere when they kill Heardred. But they’re pretty uneasy about Beowulf. Luckily he soothes their worries by helping them secure their position back in what would become Sweden. But Onela’s probably got some sons. So the cycle of violence is probably going to continue.

Would Beowulf have known this? Do you think he’s expecting an attack from Onela’s son? Is this maybe why he doesn’t fear the dragon – fighting an army of men is more terrifying because they’re not monsters?

If Beowulf knows about how inescapable all these feuds are, is that why he’s so reluctant to be king?

What are your thoughts? Go ahead and share them in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we come back to the present and Beowulf’s preparations for fighting the dragon.

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You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Is Beowulf spreading rumours about a feud?

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf predicts what will happen at the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld of the Heathobards. It’s nothing good, that’s for sure.


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The Original Old English

“þonne cwið æt beore se ðe beah gesyhð,
eald æscwiga, se ðe eall geman,
garcwealm gumena (him bið grim sefa),
onginneð geomormod geongum cempan
þurh hreðra gehygd higes cunnian,
wigbealu weccean, ond þæt word acwyð:
‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan
þone þin fæder to gefeohte bær
under heregriman hindeman siðe,
dyre iren, þær hyne Dene slogon,
weoldon wælstowe, syððan Wiðergyld læg,
æfter hæleþa hryre, hwate Scyldungas?
Nu her þara banena byre nathwylces
frætwum hremig on flet gæð,
morðres gylpeð, ond þone maðþum byreð,
þone þe ðu mid rihte rædan sceoldest.’
Manað swa ond myndgað mæla gehwylce
sarum wordum, oððæt sæl cymeð
þæt se fæmnan þegn fore fæder dædum
æfter billes bite blodfag swefeð,
ealdres scyldig; him se oðer þonan
losað lifigende, con him land geare.
þonne bioð abrocene on ba healfe
aðsweord eorla; syððan Ingelde
weallað wælniðas, ond him wiflufan
æfter cearwælmum colran weorðað.
þy ic Heaðobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dæl Denum unfæcne,
freondscipe fæstne.
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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My Translation

“That one will then speak, while beer-drinking, about that precious object,
the elder spear-warrior, he remembers all of that treasure’s history
and those that faced death at spear-point — his mind settles on their grim fates —
then, sad of mind, he will test a young warrior’s
spirit with an assault on his heart-thought,
he will arouse the evil of war, and he will say these words:
‘Might you, my comrade, recognize that sword
which your father bore to the field,
wearing his battle mask on his last expedition,
that precious sword, the campaign where the Danes slew him,
when they seized the Heathobards and made where they lay a place of slaughter,
when all our warriors were felled by the valiant Scyldings?
Now here the sons of those slayers go about
on the hall floor, exalting in the adornments of someone else.
They boast of murder, and bear about treasures
that you by right should possess.’
Just so he urges and reminds each of that time
with bitter words, until the time comes
that one of the lady’s men sleeps in bloodstained furs,
is found sliced by a sword for his father’s deeds,
to avenge those who forfeited their lives. From there that slayer
will escape alive, for he knows the land well.
Then the oath swearing of men will be shattered
on both sides, and afterwards in Ingeld
will well up a deadly hate
and surging sorrow will cool his love for his wife.
Therefore, I consider the Heathobards of no loyalty,
their part of the peace to be made by marriage is not without deceit,
the fastness of their friendship is false.”
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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A Quick Interpretation

From an outsider’s perspective, I think this passage sums up the cyclical nature of feuds quite nicely.

For new readers and those who might not know what the flavour of early medieval feuds was, here’s a quick rundown: Group A holds a mutual grudge against Group B. Group B is living more or less peacefully near Group A until Group A decides to take revenge for that grudge. This encourages Group B to do the same with Group A. Group A then retaliates, and Group B does the same. The cycle only ends when a third group comes and sorts Group A and B out or one gradually kills the other off.

Unlike your Hatfields and McCoys. An early medieval feud wouldn’t just fizzle, it basically ends when there’s no one left to feud against.

But, put some flesh on that model, and you could very well end up with this passage. After all, the Heathobards clearly still hold some hard feelings for the Danes. All it takes for one of the next generation of them to lash out is a question.

Though the old warrior’s question is pretty loaded. He asks if the young warrior remembers his father, if he remembers the heirloom that may be his by Heathobard rights, and implies that the young man could easily take it to avenge his father and restore the honour of his family (and by extension, the Heathobards). Out of those three major notes, though, I think it’s the last one that’s the most important whisper in this young man’s ear.

Why?

Because also implied in the old warrior’s words is that the young warrior’s father must not be allowed to die in vain. Actually, there’s kind of a sense that such a slaughter as the Heathobards allegedly suffered at the hands of the Danes is unsportsmanike. Which is strange to say, but warfare has always had rules.

The most important thing about this passage as it relates to the rest of Beowulf, though, is that it contradicts something that came earlier.

Back on lines 1071 to 1158, a scop tells us the story of the Danes Hildeburh and Hengest and the winter they spent with the subject of a feud: the Frisian Finn. Here we have another situation where peace forged by marriage falls apart. There’s even a similar result. But the idea of relativism was certainly alive and well for the Beowulf poet because the Danes slaughtering the Frisians and then sailing away is seen as a victory. Told in the presence of Danes, how could it be any other way, right?

But, reading it that way, I can’t help but wonder if Beowulf is catering to some prejudice of Hygelac’s with his prediction for the future Freawearu/Ingeld wedding. Maybe he’s just drawing up these lovely word pictures for his lord to better his own position at home.

Or, since he’s back home in Geatland, is Beowulf simply being true to his feelings? Now that he’s back in Geatland, he’s just letting the truth out.

Or is the only honesty that he knows a sword-point? Maybe this is simply another part of Beowulf’s monstrous qualities. He’s just too well adapted to fitting around every suggestion he faces like his sheath fits around his sword.

Ultimately, the question that really needs to be asked (and with your tongue nowhere near your cheek) is this: Why is this passage included in Beowulf’s story about his time in Daneland?

Is a slightly informed prophecy of a doomed alliance through marriage somehow relevant to the poem as a whole? Or is Beowulf just telling Hygelac what he wants to hear? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his story of his adventures in Heorot. Specifically, he talks Grendel.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge
A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

After some cajoling from his fellow Danes, Hengest kills Finn before leaving Frisia in the spring.

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Translation

“So he could not refuse the law of the world,
when to him Hunlafing gave War-Radiance,
the best of swords, placed it into his lap,
that was amidst the Jutes a known weapon.
Just so, it later befell Finn, the bold in spirit,
that he was cruelly killed in his own home,
suffered the dire attack after Guðlaf and Oslaf
spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage,
all blamed their share of woe on Finn.”
(Beowulf ll.1142-1150a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge

I feel like finding sympathy for villains in this poem is something that I do a bit much of (see this entry in particular), but I can’t help but feel like there’s something in here regarding Finn’s feelings.

I mean, from the sounds of it, Hengest almost left without exacting revenge.

It’s not until Hunlafing gives him the famed sword, “War Radiance” (l.1143) and “Guðlaf and Oslaf/spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage” (ll.1148-1149) that he acts. Or so it seems. These two actions turn Hengest towards killing Finn before leaving.

And rightly so, right? Finn is one of the Danes’ sworn enemies – a Frisian – and so his wreaking vengeance makes sense.

But what does it say about Hengest that he needed so much convincing?

If Hunlafing hadn’t given him the sword famed from fights with the Jutes or Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t complained about how sorry they’d be coming back to Daneland lord-less and leaving his slayer alive, would he have killed Finn?

I honestly don’t think so. I think Hengest, bitter as he was all winter, had started to like Finn, or at least respect him.

The Danes, after all, had been at Finn’s mercy, and yet he respected the pact that his marriage to Hildeburh represented. Finn extended a hand of friendship to the Danes, even if only out of obligation, and he did not go back on any of his terms. Hnæf and Finn’s own son were burned together, a funeral was held for all who perished in the battle we never see, and the Danes go unharassed all winter.

So it seems likely that Hengest, who must have been the second in command while Hnæf was alive (or at least shows the level headedness required of a leader), gradually had his grudge against Finn worn away through exposure. The ember of his hatred for the man and for his people would likely remain since this is a feud we’re talking about, but if Hunlafing, Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t fanned that ember back to life, I think the Danes would’ve left without incident.

But instead they kill Finn and run off – but not before committing another act to perpetuate the feud. Though that act is mentioned in the next part of the poem.

So let’s pull back for a second.

As a sword guy I just want to point out the significance of the sword Hunlafing shows Hengest. Because I think that’s probably more of a factor in what Hengest did than Guðlaf and Oslaf’s needling. After all, as a sword that “the Jutes knew well,” it’s safe to say that it was a battle-hardened sword.

Since this is a sword that seems to have been wrapped up or tucked away, it was probably Hnæf’s own weapon. As such, it probably rampaged through the battle that came before we see Hildeburh mourning on the battlefield, and so the memory of it would be fresh in Finn and the Frisian’s minds.

Or maybe they actually wouldn’t remember it at all.

What makes the reputation of the sword “War-Radiance” important is that the Danes perceive it has such a thing. Because more than idle talk of people back home thinking them dishonourable cowards for not killing Finn, showing a concrete artifact that represented the feud between Danes and Frisians, I think, would really get Hengest thinking about revenge.

Why?

Because it would remind him of all the conflict between the two in the past, such a reputed sword would stand as a testimony and representation of their feud and its enduring nature in steel. Plus, if “War-Radiance” was Hnæf’s, there’d be the twinge of duty Hengest would no doubt feel, the duty to avenge his lord at last, perhaps long since his initial feelings of frustration and anger had cooled.

Which do you think pushed Hengest toward killing Finn – the sword or Guðlaf and Orlaf’s telling him they’d be dishonoured back home?

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A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words

This passage’s compounds are pretty clear-headed. Perhaps because of the dire nature of the act the poet sings of here. After all, it’s not a battle in which you could become ecstatic in the telling, swinging compounds about like tree trunks, it’s a revenge killing of a lord in his own hall after having been his guests for the winter. It brings a chill into springtime. So the compounds are just as cold – but not less interesting.

Especially line 1143’s “hilde-leoman.” This technically isn’t a compound word since it’s the name of a sword, but that name is two other words smashed together, so here we go!

The word “hilde-leoman” comes from the compounding of “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “leoman” (“ray of light,” “beam,” “radiance,” “gleam,” “glare,” or “lighting”), and I’ve chosen to translate it as “War-Radiance” (Seamus Heaney went with “Dazzle-the-Duel”) I think both have their merits.

But what’s interesting about this compound is that it’s a sword’s name.

Let me back up.

We see other named swords in this poem. There’s Hrunting and Nægling later on, for instance. But these are actual names, not just two words a poet (or someone) slammed together.

Sure, the usual alliteration comes to play with “hilde-leoman” (“Hunlafing hilde-leoman,” with the line’s cæsura right in the middle, perfectly bridges the gap), but it’s still neat that the name is just two words combined.

Plus, naming a sword something like “War-Radiance” makes sense. As a sword’s raised over and over again in a battle it’s going to catch whatever light there is on the field, especially if it’s constantly being swung but also being kept constantly clean either with quick wipes or jerky swings that shake any blood or gore free from the blade. So “War Radiance” (or the more personable” Dazzle-the-Duel”) makes an almost onomatopoeic sense (at least in Modern English).

The word “world-rædenne” (l.1142), meaning “way of the world,” is also kind of neat. Though more for its concept than anything to do with the word’s parts, those being “worold” (“world,” “age,” “men,” “humanity,” “way of life,” “life,” “long period of time,” “cycle,” or “eternity”) and “ræd” (“advice,” “counsel,” “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design,” “council,” “conspiracy,” “decree,” “ordinance,” “wisdom,” “sense,” “reason,” “intelligence,” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy,” “help,” “power,” or “might”).

I mean, no matter how you slice it, it basically comes back to meaning something pertaining to life and its order. The implication being, though, that killing Finn is just the way to go, it’s just what Hengest has to do as a rule of the world.

But I wonder if part of this editorializing on the part of Hrothgar’s poet sheds some light on the Anglo-Saxons’ view of history. Namely that history wasn’t something fluid that changes with every teller, but that it was something solid, and that since history was solid and fixed, so too what was to come. Though, obviously, what was to come couldn’t be read by people. So maybe there’s some determinism in that word, Hengest not being able to resist killing Finn simply because Danes and Frisians feud, and Finn’s murder would keep that going. It offers some insight into how a deterministic view of the past can lead to a deterministic view of the present and future, too, I think.

The next two compounds, “sweord-bealo” (l.1147) and “sæ-sið” (l.1149), just aren’t as interesting as “world-rædenne” and “hilde-leoman.”

Nonetheless, “sweord-bealo” brings together the unmistakable “sword” (“sword”) and “bealu” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “rain,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “a noxious thing” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”) to make a word that unmistakingly means “sword injury” or even more literally, “a grievous injury inflicted by a sword.”

And “sæ-sið” combines the nearly Modern English “sæ” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “sið” (“going,” “motion,” “journey,” “errand,” “departure,” “death,” “expedition,” “undertaking,” “enterprise,” “road,” “way,” “time,” “turn,” “occasion,” “late,” “afterwards”) to give us “sea voyage” and almost nothing else. Though there is an implication that any kind of “sið” could be a euphemism for death since that is one of the word’s definitions according to Clark Hall and Meritt.

Do you think that the sword’s name, “hilde-leoman,” is something the poet came up with entirely for alliteration or because it was actually a sword’s name? Maybe both?

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Closing

Next week we hear the rest of the story of Hengest and Finn, and see what the Danes do before they leave Frisia.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Danes and Frisians cool the feud, but compound words tell a different story (ll.1095-1106)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Roiling Blood Feud
Compounds Tell a Story
Closing

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his recital. In this poem within a poem, Finn and Hengest conclude their peace treaty, including a mention of what will happen should the treaty be broken.

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Translation

“Then they with trust their two halves together
secured in a peace treaty. Finn to Hengest
with ill-fated courage oaths swore
that he the survivors of the carnage would treat
honourably as his counsellors advised, that no man
there would by word or deed break the treaty,
nor through any artful intrigue complain of it.
All this though they were forced to serve the slayer
of their ring-giver while leaderless, to him necessity bound them;
though if any of those Frisians were to remind them of that
through boldly speaking of the blood feud,
then the sword edge should settle it.”
(Beowulf ll.1095-1106)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Roiling Blood Feud

So 11 lines more and then we see the end of the negotiations between Hengest and Finn, between Dane and Frisian. There is some tension here, and it’s pretty clear that the Danes don’t want to have to sit and wait with the Frisians. But it’s still quite a mellow section of the poem as a whole. But perhaps that’s because this part of Beowulf is really reliant on knowing the history behind it.

Actually, without Hildeburh to relate to Grendel’s mother, or something else to relate to the main action of the poem, there’s nothing except history for us to really grab onto. Though we can definitely say with confidence that the “blood feud” (“morþorhetes” (l.1105)) between the Danes and Frisians that this treaty is supposed to quell will probably break out.

But maybe there’s something about the feud between Grendel and the Danes in there.

Without the historical context, but with the trope of the feud that’s gone on so long neither side can remember the reason for it, maybe the poet is telling this story to Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the assembled Danes and Geats as a kind of joke about the situation with Grendel. But to really get a handle on that we’ll need to see the conclusion of the poem first. If Dane and Frisian don’t bloodily clash in the poem’s final lines, but instead amicably part ways then this little diversionary poem is indeed mysterious.

But I don’t think the poet would include lines like 1107’s threat of any disputes with the treaty being settled with “the sword’s edge” (“sweordes ecg”) if this poem didn’t end with some sort of fight.

Anyway, the peace terms themselves (since that is what this passage of the poem is about), offer at least some insight into Anglo-Saxon culture. At least in terms of ideals.

Ideally, counsellors would be listened to, guests/hostages would be treated honourably lest a greater force come seeking to fulfill a renewed blood feud, and, ideally, those who don’t like the treaty are kept in line with the threat of harm or death. Which is kind of a funny way to enforce a peace treaty (I can’t help but visualize a parent snapping a belt as they say “now play nice – or else!” while standing over fuming siblings), but there you go. Though violence may have been the only deterrent, since I get the impression that Danes and Frisians didn’t have much in the way of trade. Plus, this is a treaty between two small sub-groups after all, not an out and out treaty between two entire peoples.

Also, it’s good to see that just who is who is cleared up. The slain ring-giver of lines 1102-1103 was the Dane’s. Even without the historical context for this story, the “them” of line 1104 suggests the Danes since it refers to the people that the Frisians are reminding, and since it’s just Danes and Frisians here, there’s no one else that “them” could refer to. Also, the poet singing this story is himself a Dane, so it makes sense that they’re the underdogs here (just as they were against Grendel, lending some weight to my idea that more than Hildeburh’s mourning relates this little story back to Beowulf at large).

So it sounds like the Danes are without a leader. But if one side’s leader remained, why not just envelop the weakened side while you hold the advantage?

Let me just take a quick look at Wikipedia’ entry on the this part of the poem (under the “Finnsburh Fragment” entry).

Ah. Here we go.

Hildeburh was Finn’s wife, and their marriage was meant to bring harmony between the Danes and the Frisians. So Finn, leader of the Frisians, obviously wanted peace. Hence, he makes a treaty with the Danes rather than just destroying them.

So Finn’s desire for peace is likely genuine (not unlike the well-meaning, but wrong-headed parent from a day dream a few paragraphs back). But that’s obviously not something that’s shared among the other Frisians, since any mention of the Danes serving their lord’s slayer is made punishable by death. And with good reason.

As poems like the Battle of Maldon make clear, loyalty to your lord was paramount in Anglo-Saxon society. So there could be no greater insult than to dishonour your former leader by turning around and working with his killer. Working with your lord’s slayer in any capacity – whether it was simply signing a treaty or running his errands – was the ultimate slander to your fallen leader because it suggests that he inspired no loyalty in those he lead. And, though it might’ve been fuelled by gifts of treasure, a true comitatus (or warrior band) was held together with loyalty. True warriors would stick with their leader no matter what, confident that in the end they would get their reward.

But Finn’s desire for peace doesn’t really clear up why the Danes are hanging around. Are they hostages? Are they trapped by winter’s icy water? Or is there something else keeping them?

I’ve already thrown in my guess that this peace treaty between the Danes and Frisians won’t last. Do you think it’ll make a difference and bring the two groups together, or that it will end in bloodshed?

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Compounds Tell a Story

Because of the tension the negotiation between two bitter rivals in this passage, it’s full of compound words.

But what makes these compounds really stick out is that this passage’s compounds tell a story. Here goes.

On line 1096 we find the passage’s first compound word. This is the word “frioðu-wær,” which means “treaty of peace.”

Simply enough it comes from the words “friðo” (“peace,” “safety,” “protection”) and “wær” (“true,” “correct,” “faith,” “fidelity,” “keeping,” “protection,” “agreement,” “treaty,” “compact,” “pledge,” “covenant,” “bond (of friendship)”). So right there in the constituent words you can see the meaning of “peace treaty.” It’s just as straightforward as such a treaty should be.

But things thicken on line 1101. This is where “inwit-searo” is mentioned. This word, meaning “artful intrigue,” comes from the words “inwit” (“evil,” “deceit”; or “wicked,” deceitful) and “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery”; as well as “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”).

So now we’re faced with a kind of “cunning evil” or “wicked snare,” perhaps the machinations of someone or some group against the peace treaty mentioned above. But what makes these machinations plot-thickening is that they aren’t direct. This isn’t a compound word for “fight” or “sword” but instead comes from a sense of malicious intelligence that has set pieces up only to knock them down in a clever way.

In fact, “inwit-searo” describes just the kind of act that could spark a “morþor-hete,” or “blood feud” like the one on line 1105. This word combines “morþor” (“deed of violence,” “murder,” “homicide,” “manslaughter,” “mortal sin,” “crime,” “injury,” “punishment,” “torment,” or “misery”) and “hete” (“hate,” “envy,” “malice,” “hostility,” “persecution,” or “punishment”).

So at its simplest, aside from “blood feud,” morþor-hete” could simply mean hate-fuelled murder, or any violent act with malicious intent. To my eye at least, the word itself even looks like it could mean the fog that someone gets into when they commit such an act, a “murder-heat” or maybe “murder-haze.”

Without knowing exactly what the big rivalry between Dane and Frisian was, I can’t say if these three compound words tell the probably forgotten origin of the feud between these two peoples. But it is rather neat to see the compounds lined up like this. It might just foreshadow this poem’s own end, but we’ll find that out in four weeks.

Blood feuds were a common problem in Anglo-Saxon society and the early medieval period in general. But, feuds continue to be a super popular idea in TV and movies. Why do you think we still tell stories about feuds?

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Closing

Next week, following up on forging this peace, the poet turns to tell of the funeral for all those slain in the tragic combat of Frisian and Dane.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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